Balance Retrofitting, Risk

Four years ago the Northridge earthquake demonstrated how even a well-prepared city like Los Angeles can get knocked around by relatively moderate shaking. Some of the most modern and aggressive building codes in the country kept the death toll surprisingly low, but overall damage was still estimated as high as $42 billion. Since then, lessons from the quake have worked their way into the complicated and technical codes that govern how everything from office towers to single-family houses get built. That these changes needed to be made went without question. How to apply them, though, is more problematic.

For most buildings, the city requires only voluntary compliance. In other words, owners of existing apartments and parking garages are under no legal obligation or deadline to retrofit their properties to meet tough new safety standards. Opponents of mandatory retrofits argue that such a requirement would bankrupt thousands of small property owners--from homeowners to shopkeepers. That's a compelling argument and we agree that the costs of retrofitting must be balanced against the risk of damage. In most cases, mandatory retrofits are not the answer.

But in some cases--like concrete commercial buildings and older apartment complexes--they are. City officials need to show a little more creativity in finding ways to make retrofitting more palatable to property owners worried about the costs. As memory of the quake's devastation fades and the window for action starts to close, the City Council needs to demonstrate the kind of leadership and resolve it showed immediately after the quake.

Early on, the city ordered owners of older concrete tilt-up buildings--like big-box warehouses--to retrofit structures prone to collapse. About 65% have done so. The city also required owners of steel-frame buildings to inspect for cracks and make repairs. About 90% have done so. Gas shut-off valves now must be installed when a home changes hands. These improvements make a difference. The only other time Los Angeles required mandatory retrofitting was in 1981, when buildings of unreinforced masonry got strengthened. Property owners cried about the costs then, but experts say the death toll in Northridge would have been much higher had the changes not been made.

Councilman Hal Bernson led that fight. And he has been leading the current fight for tougher standards, but his colleagues don't seem to have the stomach to force property owners into spending big money on safety. The solution demands both carrots and sticks. The city holds the sticks--through tactics like deadlines and code enforcement; state and federal governments hold the carrots--through cheap loans or reasonable tax breaks. No one seems willing to wield either, though.

For instance, city officials should revisit standards for some public and commercial buildings--particularly all-concrete structures such as parking garages and some big retail stores. Engineers fear these stiff buildings may be the most vulnerable in a severe quake, but the retrofit standards are voluntary and there is little incentive to make the fixes. Likewise, owners of so-called soft-story apartment buildings--often with garages tucked underneath--have little motivation to reinforce their property unless government and the marketplace make it attractive to do so.

Giving owners several years to make repairs allows them to spread costs over time. Plus, state and federal officials can help with low-interest retrofitting loans. Proposals to accelerate amortization on federal taxes for owners who retrofit property fell flat in Washington but deserve another look. Locally, the city could offer credits on business taxes for property owners who make repairs.

Like the city, building codes evolve--as knowledge and experience accumulate and reveal better ways to make homes and stores and offices safer places to live, shop and work. They don't materialize overnight. New ideas are incorporated into new buildings and slowly work their way into a constantly changing urban landscape. Even the quake itself improved safety. With thousands of ruined structures, owners were required to meet newer standards as they rebuilt. In the long run, that makes the city safer. The same kind of long view is needed today.

The new codes should affect the bulk of the city gradually over time and their costs will be absorbed almost unnoticed. But in buildings where the risk is greatest and the concentration of people highest, preemptive action must be taken. The question is not whether another quake will strike Southern California, but when.

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